Posts Tagged ‘Summit’

The Politician as Jock: Rules of the Gym

March 1, 2010

To most people, Barack Obama is seen as a cool, intellectual man with a professorial bearing and a deep understanding of complex issues.  He has a tremendous command of facts and can win over anyone in a policy debate.   He demonstrated all of this at the Blair House summit on health reform last Thursday, but I think we also got a glimpse of another side of his personality.

At the very end of the event, after the formal closing and polite applause, Obama stood up, turned to his right and shook hands with Vice President Joe Biden.  I expected him to move on and give congratulations and support to Democratic Congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who are responsible for most of the heavy lifting needed to pass the reform bill.  To my surprise, he turned in the opposite direction and shook hands with the Republican leaders, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.  He smiled, exchanged a few words, patted them on their backs, and kept moving down the line of Republicans.  What’s up with that?  Why was he spending time with his opponents rather than his allies?

Then I realized that I had done the same thing the day before.  I wasn’t at the Blair House, or course; I was at the Salvation Army gym in Northeast Portland.  At the noontime pick-up basketball game for 55+ guys, my team had just won.  Naturally, I high-fived with the teammate closest to me, but then I went to each of the guys on the other team.  I shook hands, clapped them on the shoulder, and said “good game”.  I never thought about why I do this, but it always seemed like the right thing to do.

Maybe Obama was making a calculated political gesture, but I think he was simply doing the right thing when you win a contest: shake hands with the opposing team.  He was following the unwritten rules of the gym.  It’s OK to knock down your opponent, but help him back up.  Win the game, but don’t taunt the losers.  Don’t forget that you’ll be playing against these guys again next week.  Maybe all Presidents do this, but I think Obama does it better than anyone I’ve seen.  Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried to come across as “regular guys”, but for some reason they caused their opponents to grind their teeth.  The personal resentment of Clinton and Bush fueled the opposition to their policy initiatives.  I think Obama is more effective at defusing his opponents’ anger and frustration, perhaps because he really gets it about the rules of the gym.  People used to say that they would rather have a beer with Bush rather than Gore, but I’d much rather play pick-up hoops with Obama than Bush.

Will this help to get the health reform bill passed in Congress?  I doubt that it will have a major impact in the short run, since the Republicans have already decided they will oppose the bill no matter what.  In this battle, the key to success is helping the swing Democrats in the House to see that passing the bill is the right thing to do, policy-wise and politically.  But I think this incident provides a glimpse into Obama’s personal and political style, and over the long run it will help to blunt the personal attacks that crippled previous Presidents.  In the tough contests to come, any little edge is important.